"This Car Is Not For a Girl": Unpacking Another Trunkload of Sexism

"This car is not for girls."

Aug 30, 2012 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

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Imagine you are casually browsing craigslist, looking for a car.

Some of you might remember my adventures in shopping for a new car. I wound up ordering the Fiat 500 Abarth -- which is just as hot as the heterosexist commercials make it out to be, honestly. I have come to loathe the marketing (it's being fairly exclusively marketed to men), but, oh, my goodness, do I ever love my car.

(At least the internal materials are a lot better than the commercials. But Charlie Sheen? Really? I don't want to be a member of his bad boys club, trust.)

Now that I have it anyway -- it took three and a half months for it to arrive once I ordered it. Talk about an exercise in patience! I am pleased to report that Fields Fiat, in the MCO, did right by me though, in taking me seriously as a customer. Adante and Larry, y'all were fantastic. Thanks for just selling me an awesome car.

My good experience with them aside, the world of cars and car buying is still fraught with sexism. Sure, you might not experience it, but there's always the looming opportunity to not be surprised at all when some guy douchebags it up about automobiles. This is intensely illustrated, as are so many other things, by that fascinating microcosm of life: Craigslist.

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Wait, what?

This car is not for a girl. Let's unpack that, shall we?

Actually, let's not. Let's call it what it is: ridiculous damn sexist nonsense. This is a sports car and it needs some work. The seller is, I suspect, trying to convey that only serious car enthusiasts need apply. Thing is, "serious car enthusiast" and "girl" are not mutually exclusive states of existence.

For those unfamiliar with the term, gender essentialism is the idea that men are men because they are men and there is a certain set of characteristics that are MANLY. In contrast, women are women because they are women and there is a certain set of characteristics -- often set up in opposition to stereotypically masculine traits -- that are WOMANLY. And, here's the crux, it's all determined by biology. Statements like "this car is not for girls" are only meaningful because, as readers, we know the gender essentialism code. We get all the undercurrent -- women don't like to work on cars, women don't buy "serious" sports cars. They just aren't biologically capable of it.

Gender essentialism bugs the shit out of me.

Even if you think no woman anywhere ever got wet thinking about horsepower, the kind of essentialist gendered bullshit in this ad would still be bullshit. Owning and fixing cars is not a boys-only club that you have to show your dick (and your certified "I'm a straight American male" membership card) to gain access to.

At least it shouldn't be. But I also spent the three-and-a-half months waiting on my car hanging out in Fiat forums, listening to dudes talk about cars -- and, whew. Fiats are not known as the most stereotypically masculine car on the block, but the Abarth is considered a performance vehicle; where the performance vehicle exists, the gearhead sexism exists follows.

You can actually see this when you look at car-buying trends in general. This year's demographic study from TrueCar.com breaks it down by the numbers.

MINI Cooper ranks as the car brand with the largest female market share. 46.2% of MINIs sold are, in fact, sold to women. That means the number one brand of car purchased by women is still purchased by more men. Yet MINI has a reputation for being a "girly" car.

Meanwhile, the car brand that has the largest male market share? Ferrari. 92.5% of Ferraris are purchased by men.

When it comes to specific models of cars, the results are even more interesting. The Volvo S40, a comfortable sedan that started around 26k in 2011, scores the highest with the ladies; 57.9% of the S40s sold for the 2011 model year were purchased by women. I realize that is a boring statistic all there on its own by its lonesome. But check this out -- 88.2% of Porshe 911s were purchased by men. The Porsche 911 starts in the 70s and go up from there.

Men and women are buying very different cars. I would say they are buying cars for very different reasons as well -- you can look at this list and tell a lot about who has disposable income for luxury cars, you know?

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My car was never marketed to me.

I realize that some people will say I am reading too much into a harmless Craigslist ad and all the seller meant was that, you know, the car was going to take a lot of work and women don't usually like to do those things. But I think it is in these "harmless" moments that we take the true pulse of our culture. Because there is still the assumption in 2012 that "women" are or are not a certain way based on their gender. Men don't work on cars because of a biological imperative, y'all.

And, I mean, we don't even get to be women -- this car isn't for GIRLS. Yes, I realize that women are particularly invested (thanks to an overwhelming mountain of cultural messages) in the quest for eternal youth, but it has started to bother me more and more when men refer to women as girls. It's a diminutive. It's addressing us as though we are children.

As previously discussed, I am a grown-ass adult. Sure, sometimes going out with my friends gets referred to as "going out with the girls" (which is actually way too twee for me on a regular basis), but I think there's a world of difference between self-identification and how we get labeled when people are trying to exclude us.

The car in this Craigslist ad is a '91 300xz. That's smack in the middle of its production run. Z cars are the number one selling sports car series of all time. There are a LOT of these cars driving around, and lots of different people own them. In part because there are so many of them and in part because sports car folks tend to be passionate, there are all sorts of clubs people can join if they own a Z car.

Some of those people? Are women.

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Really, really?

Those women may or may not have vaginas. Just like the men who like Z cars may or may not have penises. Gender essentialism breaks down, in part, because it insists that gender functions as a strict binary. That doesn't leave a lot of room for trans folks and/or genderqueer people, you know?

Are they allowed to buy this car?

From a purely consumer-driven point of view, I get that ad agencies are targeting demographics. For example, my car is a limited edition and past performance for sales of sports cars indicates that more men are going to buy it than women. So the ads are targeted at men and, well, I bought one anyway. But once you're on the Craigslist scale of things, you aren't holding focus groups, you know? You're just writing your ad, making unconscious (though sometimes conscious) choices based on your unspoken (though sometimes spoken) assumptions about the world and people around you. This is why I care about advertising and analyzing it; it creates kind of a feedback loop -- it defines our "normal" worldview even as it reflects it.

Given the nature of Craigslist, this car is probably already sold. There's no penalty for excluding women from the potential buyer pool. But I'm going to sign back into the Fiat forums. And I'm going to find the same attitude.

At least I have my car to keep me company when I do.